John Beall, Professor and Composer-in-Residence at West Virginia University since 1978, is a native Texan. The son of a Baptist minister, he grew up in Belton and Beaumont, and obtained his first degrees from Baylor University, a leading church-related institution. In those years Beall absorbed a deep classical musical culture; before college, he had become a capable pianist and string player, both double bass and cello, with a precocious knowledge of their literature. After serving four years in the United States Air Force, he attended the Eastman School of Music for his doctorate (Ph.D, 1973), obtaining the Louis Lane Prize and the Howard Hanson Prize, two of Eastman’s highest composition honors. His principal teachers were Samuel Adler at Eastman, and Richard Willis and Charles Eakin at Baylor.
Beall’s first academic positions were in Texas and Illinois, before he accepted the West Virginia position. In the succeeding years, even after his relocation to West Virginia, several of Beall’s outstanding works, such as the Piano Fantasy and the Anglican Mass, continued to utilize serial materials and techniques; but there was a definite trend toward a more tonally-centered, yet still highly individualized harmonic and melodic syntax. Hymn and folk material, and the drive to communicate their emotional essence, played a large role in this transition.
But an unmistakably Appalachian orientation is felt as early as 1981, in the quartet for piano, violin, cello, and clarinet On Chestnut Ridge. On Chestnut Ridge utilized Fair Charlotte and Lover’s Lament from Patrick Gainer’s book, Folksongs from the West Virginia Hills. His 1997 opera, Ethan Frome, written in collaboration with librettist Jack Held, quotes the New England fiddle tune, Soldier’s Joy. At the same time Beall was becoming more deeply acquainted with the scenic wonders of his adopted state, its mountains, gorges, and whitewater, as well as its people. Often his chosen hymn tunes have a strong flavor of folk music. In his Sonata for Cello and Piano, 1984, he used the tune Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling. His Symphony No. 1 in 1985 used the hymn Dunlap’s Creek; and the orchestral Mountain Music, 1987, used Am I a Soldier of the Cross, as well as Beall’s original version of a barn-dance fiddle tune. His Symphony No. 2, “Spruce Knob,” (2003) is named for the highest peak in West Virginia and uses the folk song, Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies as its signature melody. Folk tunes have also figured in more recent works such as the Sonata for Viola and Piano (2004) and the Piano Quintet (2008). The hymn tune Come, Holy Ghost is used in the recent band piece, Righteous Fire.
His music is published by Carl Fischer, and Southern Music Co. and also available through Theodore Front Musical Literature, Inc. Recordings of his music are found on Crystal Records (one LP) and Cambria (2 CDs), E.R.M. Media (2 CDs), and the West Virginia University Press (2 CDs).
- Steven Herbert Smith